AZT, PCT, ETC

A journey of 800 miles begins with a single misstep. That’s how my Arizona Trail (AZT) thru-hike started, anyway. I should back up a little so that I can properly set the scene. About 22 years ought to do it.

How hot?

I moved to Chandler, Arizona, in the middle of August 2000. The move was job-related, and it was all a bit rushed, so I didn’t have time to visit beforehand. I’d been to the USA (specifically: Texas in October) once before, and really enjoyed it. How different could Arizona be? I was pretty sure I’d be fine, so I committed to an assignment of “indefinite” duration. I left Heathrow airport on a typical British summer day: cloudy, upper fifties Fahrenheit, and probably going to rain later that afternoon.

Many hours later, as my plane made its final approach, I looked out of the window in the direction of South Mountain. There was a cluster of red lights shimmering through the heat-haze in the dark. As we taxied toward the jet bridge at Sky Harbor International Airport, the pilot spoke over the intercom.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. The local time is 8:05 PM and the temperature is 105℉. Welcome to Phoenix.”

I mentally repeated the rough conversion to Celsius before realizing that the result was meaningless. I had no idea what it would actually feel like. My body clock told me the time was actually just after 5 AM as I walked through the sliding doors leading to the multi-level parking structure. Suddenly without air-conditioned comfort, I was instantly confused. What? How? Why was it this warm? Perhaps the residual heat from the engines of all the parked cars. That had to be it. After all, it was dark. But so hot. But dark.

Damn hot

I quickly discovered that that’s just what “105℉ in the shade” feels like. In direct sun, it feels 20℉ to 30℉ hotter. Whenever I went outside at midday, my skin seemed to sizzle under direct sunlight and the energy reflected from every surface. Inhaling deeply would sting the inside of my nostrils. I eventually recovered from the thermal shock of moving to Arizona after I’d survived my first full summer. In my opinion, summer in Phoenix starts in mid-April and finishes around Halloween.

During my time in “The Valley of the Sun,” I trained for several marathons. Two of those races were in the fall, which meant many uncomfortable summer miles. I initially tried running at 5 AM, when the temperature was only 90℉. However, I’m not a morning person, and I soon decided that 110℉ at 7 PM was preferable.

My homemade training plan involved three 10-milers a week, plus a long run of up to 22 miles. I drank three pounds of water during each 10 mile run, but lost twice that amount in sweat. For my weekly long run, I gave up on the outdoors entirely. I joined a nearby gym and deposited my several pounds of sweat all over one of their treadmills. I hated the treadmill. Deeply. Passionately. And I still do. A treadmill takes the physical discomfort of exertion and multiplies it by the psychological discomfort of boredom. The scenery never changes, and the numbers in front of you change too slowly.

Hamster wheel

One Saturday night, prior to my weekly treadmill torture session, I had a dream. In this dream, I was trying to run somewhere, for some reason. And as usual, running in a dream was taking a huge amount of effort. Out of nowhere, a voice interrupted proceedings.

“Save your energy,” it said. “You have a long run to do later today.”

Apparently, even my subconscious dislikes treadmills. They were, however, a necessary evil that helped get me through each Phoenix summer.

Don’t sweat it

The point I’m trying to make is that I understand why some people begin their thru-hike “too early” in the year. Being too hot is uncomfortable enough that the risks of an early start seem preferable. If I hadn’t spent more than seven years living in Arizona, I would probably have been one of the people starting the AZT in mid-March. Instead, I decided to start the Arizona Trail at the beginning of April. I’d still be leaving the lower elevations before they really started to bake.

When my SOBO hike of the PCT was interrupted in 2021, I made plans to hike the AZT SOBO instead. I dusted-off those unused plans, and updated them for going north. Even at a fairly relaxed pace, I’d reach the northern terminus before the north rim of the Grand Canyon opened in mid-May. After I found a cheap flight to Tucson, I joined Facebook’s “Arizona Trail, Class of 2022” group. Then I arranged to share the cost of a shuttle to the start with three other hikers. Here’s my final itinerary.

Table showing distances between Arizona Trail-towns.

My Arizona Trail resupply schedule.

The day before being shuttled to the trailhead, I arrived in Tucson with my backpack weighed down by my first week’s food. I needed to buy a gas canister, and the nearest Walmart was 4.5 miles away. My new boots needed to be broken in, and I was too early to check in at my hotel. A nine mile walk solved most of these problems. However, it also left me with a new concern: something about the big toenail on my left foot didn’t feel quite right.

The misstep

The next day, our shuttle (thanks, Carrie!) dropped the four of us off at Montezuma Pass. After completing the four mile round-trip to the border, I arrived back at the dirt road, eager to continue north. I was pretty sure I remembered Farout showing the trail continuing on the west side of Montezuma Pass. That misstep I mentioned earlier? I went west.

After the emotional highs of the PCT in 2021, I felt giddy to be back on trail. I continued down the dirt road for at least a mile before realizing I’d gone the wrong way. My new phone’s sluggish GPS really didn’t help matters. Exhilaration instantly turned to frustration. I stomped back up the hill, consoling myself that by the time I was done, an extra two miles would mean nothing.

The rest of the day was uphill, but heading in the right direction once again, my exhilaration returned and the climb felt easy. The clouds from the previous day’s storm hadn’t yet dissipated, and that helped too. I camped near Bathtub spring, just beyond Miller Peak, and the next day, began my first big descent. By lunchtime, I could feel my toenail becoming more of a problem.

This little piggy took a beating

I stopped at Parker Canyon to examine my toe, and I could see the first signs of a bruise appearing beneath the nail. Before hiking the PCT in 2021, I’d always cut my toenails “too short,” according to the experts. Still, I rarely had any problems. During the PCT, I changed the shape of my big toenails to “correct/straight” with careful trimming every two weeks. I still didn’t have any problems, so I kept them that way – until day two of the Arizona Trail. That lunchtime, I cut my left big toenail as short as I could, noticing for the first time that the tips of my toes are particularly fleshy. My guess is that they were pushing upwards against the nail, prying it away from the nail-bed.

The discomfort from my toe lessened that afternoon, but the damage was done. The bruise under the toenail blossomed gradually, creeping back towards the cuticle with each passing day. Every morning it presented me with a slightly different rainbow of colors. Fortunately this time, losing the toenail wasn’t too painful because the swelling developed slowly. It was almost two weeks before the nail started to detach – much slower than the previous times I’ve lost it.

But seriously. Don’t sweat it

During my time on the Arizona Trail, I chatted with non-thru-hikers from two categories.

  1. They’d never heard of the AZT, much less that it was possible to hike its entire length in one go. These people inevitably had lots of questions.
  2. They were aware of the AZT and its narrow windows for spring/fall thru-hiking. These people frequently asked the same question. “You’ve left it too late, haven’t you?

This pattern started to emerge on day two, at the Eureka Canyon trailhead. I met a group of retirement-age day-hikers, who were familiar with the AZT. I told them I was thru-hiking, and after one of them imparted a little factoid, he asked the question I would soon come to expect.

“The Sonoran Desert’s the hottest, lowest desert in the US. You’re a bit late starting out, aren’t you?

The first time I heard the question, I hardly gave it a second thought. When people kept asking it, I definitely started to second-guess my choice of start date. But then I’d remember my 7.4 Arizona summers, and remind myself of what I learned back then. You’ll be fine.

Elevation profiles of the AZT and southern PCT.

Lowest? The AZT and southern PCT both average about 5700 ft.

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